An author who came from Nottingham has recently died.
Alan Sillitoe, the author of the kitchen-sink classics Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, has died at the age of 82, it was announced yesterday. His two most famous novels, which eclipsed his prolific later work, celebrated the quiet heroism and unsung adventures of provincial working-class existence in the humdrum surroundings of post-war Britain.
Though I’ve not read any of his work, I understand much of it was representative of working class life in the region. I keep meaning to engage with the works of more local authors.
When I moved to the city a few years ago, it was a new area where I knew no one. And one of the sacrifices of being a writer with a full-time job is that the discipline forces you to take a half-arsed effort at engaging in a new social life. I actually found reading D.H. Lawrence quite a good way to make the city and its surrounding countryside feel more like a home. I’m searching for a more eloquent and imaginative way of putting it, but there was something pretty cool about learning about the same local landscape through the eyes of a writer, hearing briefly about how characters experienced the region, even if it was the best part of a century ago. It adds a whole new layer the place when you move to an area. It’s as if you’re privy to information few others in your street know about – local advice. The landscape becomes familiar, and that’s what helps make something a home, surely?
I know it’s probably not quite easy to do this through the secondary world books that make up a good percentage of the genre, but I wonder how many others have explored the local history and culture through local writers? How many people even know, even care, what the local novels are?
Well from my bedroom office window I can almost see the hills Lewis Carroll walked along when he devised The Hunting of the Snark.
A couple of miles through the woods to the East are where the first Martian invaders landed in War of the Worlds.
I can get to the real Watership Down inside of 30 minutes, Oxford & home of Tolkien and Lewis in about an hour.
I’ve even found a place whilst out walking called Buckleberry between Oxford and Reading, that whilst it doesn’t have a ferry, does have a rather impressive ford.
I’ve always been curious about the output of local writers. Sometimes the local writers I’ve enjoyed the most, aren’t even local to where I am at the moment, but the places where I wish I could be or long to return to having never left them in my heart.
Thomas Hardy’s fictional “Wessex” will always be such a place. I don’t live there, and likely never will. I have however traveled through the real world settings for many of his novels; they have remained strongly tied to my consciousness and slumber on in my own blurred memories, merging the geography of coastline and story into a seamless whole.
Fantasy however seems a fine place to find such connections. Take the Oxford of Philip Pullman, or some of the novels of H.G. Wells, where locations at least partially native to the author’s own past feature. It’s hard to hurl a brick these days without striking a fantasy author who lives in London and in whose stories London, by one name or another, lives as well. Again, I think it’s not always necessary to be a native of a region, but only to feel that one has been touched by a particular place, be it from childhood inhabitance or a more passing connection.
I suppose it depends on your precise location as well. Some places provide more dramatic and picturesque settings than others and thus attract skilled authors like moths to an outdoor flame. Not every nook and corner of the landscape has had the benefit of its own champion. Even where it has, not all who have detailed it have been equally talented or equally prolific. How many authors have written about Slough outside of Hilary Mantel? Perhaps quite a few, but I don’t live there and have little desire to, so I suppose I’ll never know. I doubt she would be a local writer anyway, having never to my knowledge lived there as well.
Many authors of fantasy and secondary worlds I think go one step forward. They create the locations they’d like to dwell in, at least in their minds. I don’t think many would actually want to buy property there, set up shop in their local creature-overrun urban localities or with dark lords tramping about with their armies of orcs for neighbors. All the same, these imaginary worlds do and always have served as surrogate homes, places that both as readers and writers, we long to return to and explore. In the end, is there any better definition for the concept of home? It’s the place we want to be at the end of our travels, not necessarily the same one from which we started them.
I live in walking distance of Bromley where HG Wells was born, so I can see why a Martian invasion might have been an appealing idea …
It’s a really good point and a lovely idea. When I moved to Lancaster I spent time getting to know the area and its history. I’ve been lax since moving to London. Somehow everyone takes London for granted – I suppose it’s so ubiquitous in all media that people feel like they know it already. But it is always fun when you see a ‘shout out’ in books – like Lady Catherine mentioning Bromley in Pride and Prejudice, or certain places in Ian R MacLeod’s ‘The Light Ages’ (memory is hazy, but I think Crystal Palace might be involved?).
I’m from Nottinghamshire originally but it’s only recently that I finally got around to reading DH Lawrence. I picked the most obvious one to start with, of ourse: Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I certainly plan to read more by him.
Adrian – sounds good. You should maybe write a little piece on your blog. I’m all for celebrating the local.
Good thoughts there, Eric, especially Pullman and Oxford. And yes, that’s a very interesting notion about places in which authors would like to dwell. I’d never really thought of it like that before.
Thanks, Rachel. You, too, should maybe give it a little coverage on the blog. London should have a wealth of heritage for you to explore!
Ian – yes, I find Lawrence’s short fiction and novellas much easier to get through than some of his other novels; he’s got rather a unique and heady prose style… (Though I did enjoy LCL)
Christopher Fowler’s horror and mystery novels are brilliant at capturing tiny details of London districts. (I won’t just say ‘London’; he makes it much more disparate than that.) I’m still waiting for him to get round to the part of London where I used to live!
Far fewer novels about Southampton, though. Although a near-future Hampshire ecothriller by Julian Rathbone gave me the shivers just because it depicted survivors of ethnic cleansing taking refuge in the same car park I walk past half a dozen times a week!
Since I live in a small, little-known town in North Carolina, I would be fascinated by any novel that was based in my area. A couple TV movies have been filmed here, and I remember being glued to them so I could pick out familiar places. I would love to see how fictional characters fared in my town.
Dani – I think libraries are good places to start for these kind of things, so it might be worth checking out what they say.